Regular readers of this blog know that I am a film fan, and so it’s really no surprise that I’d be interested in Christine Sneed’s excellent debut novel, Little Known Facts—a book I read in two sittings. Dynamic yet aging film star/director Renn Ivins is at the centre of the book and with each chapter told by various people in Renn’s life, a complex picture emerges of a talented, enormously successful, fabulously wealthy man, yet who, as ex-wife #1, Lucy states is “quite capable of rationalizing any decision he makes that involves his penis.” Through these chapters, both 1st and 3rd person narrative, we see Renn through the eyes of a range of people: his resentful, trust fund son, Will, whose bitterness towards his father hobbles his ability to move on, Renn’s daughter, Anna who’s on her last year of med. school at UCLA, a prop master who augments his income by stealing souvenirs, Renn’s two ex-wives, pediatrician Lucy and Melinda, who’s just written a tell-all memoir, Will’s girlfriend Danielle, and Renn’s girlfriend du jour, up-and-coming film star, Elise, a girl young enough to be his daughter.
By presenting these alternate voices, author Christine Sneed not only adds multiple layers to this tale of family relationships tainted with fame, absence, and infidelity but she also infuses a thread of sympathy for her characters–no small feat since we are talking about extremely wealthy people who can more or less do what they want with their time and money. Will, for example, has a chain of pathetic attempts to work in his patchy resume, but with a posh home paid for out of his trust fund money, he has no incentive to get out of bed in the morning. Obviously, there’s no sympathy to be had from this reader for Will’s inertia dilemma, but the situation raises the question: did Renn, who felt guilty about dumping his family and moving on, do his children any favours setting them up with trust funds? It’s also, through Will, we get more than an idea of what it is like to live under the suffocating cloud of a parent’s fame. All of his life, Will has felt insignificant next to his popular film-star father and has painfully discovered that people want to be friends with him only to get a taste of Tinsel town. Even Will’s girlfriend, Danielle secretly fancies Renn and feel “lightheaded” at the prospect of meeting this charismatic man again:
Objectively, the father, despite being twice his son’s age, is the more desirable man. Along with the money and the fame, it is his confidence, his stature, his sheer Renn Ivins-ness that draws people to him. He is his own thriving industry, a true celebrity, with his metal star already embedded in the famous sidewalk a few miles away. How many women have offered themselves to him over the years? How many women, the world over, believe themselves to be in love with him at that very moment?
Renn’s relationship with his son is already an emotional minefield when he asks Will to fly to New Orleans and take over the job of personal assistant on the set of Renn’s latest film, Bourbon at Dusk. Once at the mercy of his father’s orders and whims, Will becomes incredibly attracted to his father’s new girlfriend and leading lady, Elise, but is the attraction genuine or is it fueled by competitiveness?
With the story told by several voices, there are some time gaps in the narrative, and sometimes a chapter picks up some months later after major developments have occurred. With the multiple narratives and their varied voices, the author keeps the supple story moving in this page-turner that questions the price of fame and power. With the exception of his daughter Anna, a young woman who appears to have her life together, all the people in Renn’s life seem to suffer from knowing him, and none of Renn’s relationships are straight-forward. Renn believes in giving at least 15% of his money back to charity, and is capable of great generosity at several points in the novel, but in spite of his financial open-handedness, Renn never really gives himself completely in a relationship. He’s not even on loan. It would be more accurate to say that he’s there for that moment, and nothing more. It’s almost as if Renn has acted in so many films, played so many roles, that there’s no centre to this man. He even keeps 2 sets of journals: one official journal to be published after his death, and the secret one called J2 in which he keeps a record of “shady things” that he’s “witnessed and done nothing about” or things he’s done he’s “regretted.” J2 is destroyed at the end of each year, and by the time Little Known Facts concludes, Renn has plenty of new material for J2.
Naturally both of Renn’s ex wives have a lot to say about him. Lucy seems to have him pegged quite well and realizes that her marriage to Renn was doomed:
Our marriage began to exhaust me once people started to recognize him everywhere we went, after he became famous enough that paparazzi sometimes lurked outside the gate at the end of our driveway, but I was still not ready to give up. Still, it was clear that a marriage that lasts does not have the rest of the world pressing in on it; it does not have fanatics or floozies feverishly hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the principals, to touch his hand or whatever other part of him they can reach. A marriage that lasts does not feature one of the principals being paid to simulate sex on camera with someone young and very attractive, which is impossible for the other principal to get used to because this movie sex looks real and therefore it must feel real to the couple being filmed. A marriage that lasts does not have the aura of a siege, of a boat being rocked so hard I felt almost permanently ill. I knew I would lose him; I think I knew this very early on, but it wasn’t something I let myself say to anyone, and I tried never to say it to myself either.
Although Lucy realizes that her marriage was doomed by Renn’s fame, she admits to feelings of “regret or loneliness or anger over nothing that I can clearly articulate,” and still single, she compares other men unfavorably to Renn Second wife, Melinda’s chapter is written in a pro-and con fashion–clearly the influence of years of expensive post-Renn therapy here, and it’s through this relationship that we see some heavy negatives about Renn balanced with some positive attributes. In one section, Melinda describes what Renn spends all his millions on, and that includes frequent romantic trips by private plane to his favourite restaurant in Napa. Rather hilariously, later on in the book, Renn flies Elise on that same trek–same destination, different woman. More than a bit tacky, and while Melinda reveals this small detail about her ex-, Renn seems oblivious to the fact that he is, in many ways, a predictable walking cliché. Here he is phenomenally wealthy, a man most men envy and most women drool over, and yet the reality is that he resorts to botox to fight aging, is romancing a woman young enough to be his daughter (and is any coincidence that she’s a hot new rising star?) and spends 100s of thousands on a psychic who ‘helps‘ with the major decisions in his life.
While the novel confirms rather than challenges some rather well-worn territory about wealth and fame (it sucks to be rich and famous) ultimately, Little Known Facts is a cleverly structured character study of the life of Renn Ivins: a man every male wants to be and every female wants to sleep with, and glaring exceptions to this are the family members and the exs he’s burned in the past who, of course, have an entirely different opinion of what Renn is really like. Little Known Facts could very literally mean J2–the secret journal Renn keeps as a way of expiating his sins or it could be the dirt the people in Renn’s life know about which is in stark contrast to the glitzy superstar image. The novel’s bottom line is the question: what is the cost of fame? And the author shows clearly and convincingly that it’s not just the star but their immediate circle that pays the price in the corrosive, corrupting culture of the movie biz.